Often when someone becomes a Scrum Master the only instruction they are given is to “remove impediments”, but what does that even mean?
Impediments can come in many forms and have many effects on a team. Some can simply slow a team down by slowly eating away at their progress one bite at time while others can stop a team dead in their tracks. How successful a Scrum Master is at identifying and removing these impediments tells a lot about how they are growing in their role. To dive deeper into this, let’s look at some of the most common types of impediments a team can face and how a Scrum Master can detect and remove them.
Blockers are the classic stop a team in their tracks problems that most people tend to think of when they picture impediments. Maybe the hard drive cracked on a tester’s laptop taking him totally out of action for the next 2 days. Or, maybe a developer’s daughter suddenly became sick and she needs to leave early to pick her up from school.
Whatever the reason, blockers are often easy to spot because someone on the team grinds to a halt as soon as they occur. In fact, these are typically the types of issues most people think of when asked “What’s in your way?” at the morning standup. As a Scrum Master, it’s your job to listen to these issues and do everything in your power to clear these blockers so the team can keep moving forward.
Many of these you can probably address yourself, directly. Is there a spare laptop somewhere a tester can work from in the meantime, or can he pair with another tester to test his stories in parallel?
Others, however, you may be able to do very little about. Can the team work around the work in progress of the developer who suddenly had to be out of the office due to a family illness? Or, can she work remotely while her daughter recovers? You may have to stretch yourself to remove these issues, or you may have to get creative to help the team work around them while these issue are in their way.
Classic Impediments are a bit trickier. These are the things that slow your team down but don’t necessarily ground them to a halt. Often the team is aware of these issues but have become so accustomed to working around them that they have simply written them off as “that’s how things will always be”. In some cases, the team may have become so used to these issues that they don’t even notice them anymore or have forgotten that they even exist. Examples of common impediments include a team who is not empowered to make changes to their production environment in order to deliver new features or a team that has to frequently stop to correct merge conflicts as a result of dealing with an antiquated source control system that they don’t have the freedom to replace.
It can take an adept Scrum Master to detect these impediments since the team has often become so used to dealing with them they no longer even bother to mention them at the daily standup. Your job as Scrum Master is to first bring these issues to the team’s attention and remind them that they exist and are slowing them down. Once the team has accepted these issues, though, impediments often aren’t as easy to remove as blockers.
This is because impediments are often more of a global, systemic issue that affects the team as whole rather than a single individual. In addition, impediments tend to be more subtle artifacts that arise as a result of factors in your organizational structure or culture. These can make them very difficult to remove.
While your first task as a Scrum Master may initially be to remove these impediments so your team can operate at their full potential, ideally your long term goal should be to empower your team to start to remove these impediments for themselves. I’ve mentioned previously that impediments tend to be symptoms of deeper issues in your organization’s culture. If this is the case then the team working to identify and address these impediments themselves will have a longer lasting effect than the Scrum Master swooping in to correct these issues for them. This is because the most effective way to address deep organizational issues is for the organization to acknowledge and address these issues for themselves. Even if the Scrum Master is also a member of the organization, simply fixing issues for others on the team often becomes more of a band aide than a meaningful change in behavior.
The final type of impediment a Scrum Master may find themselves removing are the landmines and pitfalls that lie in wait for their team to trip over. These can be the trickiest type of all since, unlike a classic impediment which the team may have once been aware of but has since faded to the background, they likely have never even noticed the landmines before. Often these are issues that a Scrum Master recognizes only because he’s seen them befall similar teams in the past or because it takes a second set of eyes to notice them.
Some landmines a Scrum Master may spot but aren’t entirely obvious to the team at large include an aggressive functional manager over participating in ceremonies such as retrospectives or daily standups thus limiting the transparency or honesty that the team is comfortable sharing. Or maybe daily standups moved from the morning to the afternoon turning them from an opportunity for the team to plan and synchronize at the daily level to a mere afternoon status meeting. Or even a Product Owner who is overcommitted to multiple teams thus limiting their ability to effectively clear a path for any of them. Note that in all of these cases while the presence of such a landmine isn’t a guarantee of disaster it can at least be a warning of possible issues to come. It’s up to the Scrum Master to evaluate each situation in the current environment and determine how likely it is that the landmine will detonate at the worst possible time for the team or simply become a harmless dud that fizzles out before the team even blindly wanders past it.
To make things even tougher, it’s not uncommon for a team to be initially resistive when a Scrum Master first attempts to point out landmines to the the team. This means that a Scrum Master must have a sensitive touch when coaching their team to identify and to remove this particular type of impediment.
As with classic impediments, it’s often best to coach the team to remove these impediments for themselves. But, how you coach may depend on how open your team is to such issues. If you find that your team is particularly responsive to learning about and addressing landmines then simply guiding them to identifying them with a series of leading questions may be quite effective. On the other hand, if your team resists the possibility of such landmines due to a strong cultural bias or organizational gravity then you may be better off standing aside while the team sails towards the brink to help illustrate the possible downfalls of not addressing the landmines that lie in their path. Although this approach isn’t ideal, often it’s only necessary once or twice before a team becomes more receptive to feedback on where the landmines may lay.
A Natural Progression for Scrum Masters
In all cases, how a Scrum Master progresses through identifying each type of impediment, removing it, and ultimately coaching the team to clear it for themselves are important steps in the journey from Scrum Master to coach.
Although we often describe the Scrum Master role as the one who must remove impediments for their team, it’s important to remember that true success with agile only becomes possible once the team has become empowered to identify and remove such impediments for themselves.
Want to see more about becoming a great Scrum Master? Check out my course series, Using the Scrum Framework, for tips and techniques to help your team perform at the highest level.
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